Four reasons game dynamics are vital for networked journalism

The rise of social media has obliterated barriers to entry for the media industries. Advanced capabilities once reserved for well-funded teams with expensive equipment are now more or less universally accessible. At this very moment, thousands of people with nothing more than a smartphone and mobile signal are publishing newsworthy photos and videos online.

Coping with this upsurge in distributed newsgathering capability is one of the most important challenges for any news organisation active in 2011.

The users are already sharing vast volumes of valuable material. However, their output is unstructured, often highly subjective, and devoid of context or analysis.

Professional news organisations can add value here, if they develop ways to work with users to create high-quality journalism together. For all their experience in research, production skills, and their contact networks, this is a difficult task for the pros. The intelligent application of game dynamics is a key part of the solution.

Citizenside exists specifically to take advantage of this new opportunity for networked newsgathering. Game design principles are at the heart of our work. Here are some of the ways in which we apply them to improve our journalism.

Intrinsically rewarding experiences

This is not about ‘gamification’ – a word whose trendiness has leached it of all meaning. There are compelling editorial reasons that applied game dynamics are fundamentally important for any interactive journalism operation.

At the most basic level, any news operation that wants to survive must attract, motivate and retain a network of active users – whatever its business model. This is precisely what game design is about: creating intrinsically rewarding experiences.

As proven by its soaring player numbers and revenue, the gaming industry has already mastered the art of attracting, motivating and retaining a large user network. Any interactive journalism operation benefits from the application of proven game design principles from the very beginning.

On a more specific level, there are four main ways in which game design principles can help attract, motivate and retain a network of active users.

1. Motivation

Blank pages are terrifying, and total creative freedom can be daunting. On the other hand, a specific, achievable challenge can be extremely motivating.

It is a fundamental game design concept that players need always to have a clearly defined, intriguing problem to solve. It is even better if the problem is pitched at just the right level of complexity for their level of experience. In this way they are neither bored with a simple, repetitive task, or frustrated by something too difficult for them to solve.

This very simple but powerful idea should inform all editors’ interactions with their users.

In the networked news ecosystem, it is not enough to simply ask users to send in newsworthy material. Most people have neither the news awareness, nor the contact network, nor the editorial nous to simply find newsworthy images. These remain the pro’s advantage.

However, using a game design approach, an editor can motivate a distributed network of users to attack a range of newsgathering tasks. Specific creative challenges are attractive to users. Viewed through the lens of game design, newsgathering tasks become challenging but achievable missions that users can complete.

At Citizenside, missions take the form of ‘Calls for Witnesses’. These are targeted calls for UGC, usually delivered to people within a defined radius of a news event. With members all over the world, we usually have several within a reasonable distance of any given news event. When we contact them, we give them specific information about the event and the sort of images we would like, and the deadline. This avoids the bewildering challenge of the blank page, instead offering users a specific, achievable challenge.

2. Feedback

Constant information on progress and performance is a vital part of any rewarding interactive experience. Users who aren’t constantly aware of how they are doing will find the experience frustrating and will stop coming back.

Many news websites ask users to ‘Send us your images!’. This makes sending information easy, but is not a rewarding user proposition. When a user enters text or submits images that way, there is usually no return information about what happened with it. Was their note read? Were their pictures looked at? . . . Is anyone even there?

Clear feedback to users is absolutely essential, but communicating directly with every user is extremely labour-intensive (and thus effectively impossible).

Viewed through the lens of game design, the solution is simple. Well-designed games use points and often use leveling-up structures to mark player progress.

In Citizenside’s networked news operation, users get points for submitting material, for making comments, for having their images viewed, and for many other actions. In short, users are recognized and rewarded every time they do something that helps inform the user community, or increases the quality of content, no matter how small.

Citizenside users level up as a function of these accumulated points. As they prove themselves, we grant them more user privileges. Effectively, a user’s level is a quantified measure of their commitment to the site. The feedback is clear. It allows them to see at a glance how far they’ve come, and – crucially – where they stand compared to other users.

Another game mechanic that is useful to Citizenside’s newsgathering is specialized rewards. We are implementing a badge-based system of identity rewards that will reward users for specific types of actions. For instance, submitting many photos will unlock a ‘shutterbug’ badge, while leaving many comments can lead to a ‘life of the party’ badge. (This is similar to the Xbox Live series of achievements, and the FourSquare badges).

A particular application of this principle will be specialist badges awarded for local coverage. Many of our users take photos near where they live, becoming specialists in local news over time. After all, no one knows an area like the people who live there full-time. By rewarding users for consistently contributing material from a particular location, we can identify them as reliable local experts. This recognition will be publicly displayed on their user profile, thus granting them feedback on our recognition – as well as serving as a valuable signal to the editorial team.

3. Trust

A level-based system with clear feedback, such as the one sketched above, has advantages for the editorial team as well as the user. A clear trust signal is, perhaps, the most important advantage.

Any media operation with more than a few hundred users will find it impossible to manage relationships with each one individually. How then can an editor quickly determine the quality of incoming information, without a time-consuming background check on each member?

Because it is based on the sum of past contributions, a user’s level effectively shows the degree of commitment that a user has demonstrated to his or her particular user community. This level is an unambiguous, quantified trust rating. It enables editors to make rapid and accurate judgements on a source’s trustworthiness in a networked newsgathering context.

In addition, badges serve to further refine a user’s profile. Are they specialists in photography, videography, or very active in the community? Have they unlocked privileges as power-users in a particular town or neighborhood? This is all vital information when assessing the context and validity of information.

4. Loyalty

Finally, game dynamics can aid in user retention. There is a well-established ‘lock-in effect’ among players of massively multiplayer network games such as World of Warcraft. Once players of such a game have accumulated rank and status in one game world, they are disincentivized from leaving it, because that level is effectively non-transferable social capital. They would have to start building their rank again from zero in a new game.

In the news context, this means that once users have begun submitting material to one media operator, they are much less likely to submit future material to competitors, as they will not get the same rewards (levels/badges/status) there.

It should be noted that long-established media companies have a latent advantage in brand loyalty, which can be exploited when it comes to setting up a networked newsgathering operation. Users who have grown up reading or watching a particular news brand often display high loyalty, and can be reluctant to switch.

Naturally this puts established companies in a good position when it comes to soliciting material from their users. This is why Citizenside provides a plug-and-play version of its technology to other media companies, which we call the Reporter Kit. It is the same software as Citizenside uses to interact with our own user base, with one difference. The Reporter Kit allows news companies to collect news images and video directly from their own users, without passing through the Citizenside website. This allows established media companies to build on their brand loyalty and take advantage of the newsgathering ability distributed throughout their existing loyal user base.

Conclusion – game or die

None of these principles amount to transforming journalism into a game. Rather, as journalism is necessarily becoming an interactive, networked pursuit, media operators must adapt the lessons learned in the best interactive experiences.

Video games, one of the most popular and fastest-growing media in our civilization, offer a wealth of basic principles that can be applied to attract, motivate and retain a network of active users. Citizenside is applying these principles in many ways, which give us and our partners an edge in a difficult and fast-changing marketplace.

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